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December 04, 2013
Race plays an important role in Tarrell Alvin McCraney's production of Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC – an important but a surprisingly subtle and sometimes contradictory one. McCraney is an actor, director and playwright whose career has been nurtured a large extent by British theatre with his major plays produced at the Young Vic and the Royal Court (and one far less successful play for the RSC). McCraney's best plays have been those that have interrogated the African American experience through thought-provoking multiple lenses. The Brothers Size and In the Red and Brown Water premiered at the Young Vic in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an event that sent shock waves through America as the fissure between black and white were made evident once again. Choir Boy – a Royal Court and Lincoln Center co-production – movingly examined what it felt like to be both black and gay in a prestigious New England boarding school.
McCraney's work is infused with what Michael Billington has described as "mythic simplicity" and The Brothers Size and In the Red and Brown Water drew on Yoruba traditions, which infused his work with a mixture of realism and ritual. The impact of The Brothers Size lay in the combination of its formal language, its simple staging without décor, and the pure physicality of the performances that focused on characters and situations without distraction in the production at the Young Vic made it an intense and rewarding experience. At the play's core is an encounter by African Americans with law enforcement – a racially charged event in contemporary experience – which added layers of complexity in what was otherwise a family drama. Choir Boy is a play that investigates the cultural de-humanisation of groups of people, especially along racial and sexual orientation lines with black students in the all black private school now segregating their own. Significantly, the play takes place as the school prepares for its 50th anniversary – more than a nod to the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech that was then only a year in the future when Choir Boy premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012. Choir Boy takes an incisive and painful look at how far America has swerved from the road trod by King in 1963.
My point in drawing out McCraney's writing is to hint at (as it is impossible to fully illustrate in a blog post) this body of work that draws heavily on myths yet simultaneously expresses the fissure in America (and, frankly, Britain) that breaks along racial lines – sometimes in gut-wrenching and visceral ways. The mythic status of the characters of Antony and Cleopatra may be what attracted McCraney to the play, perhaps seeing in these characters with larger than life reputations another way to explore the themes that have peppered his work. In fact, it began with a naked Cleopatra, walking through the pool of water upstage against the back of the Swan's wall and then sitting along its edge, wailing.
Given McCraney's body of work and the production's status as a co-production with two American companies and its purported setting as Haiti before the revolution, Antony and Cleopatra felt very British. The cast was half- British and half-American, but only once did an American accent come out of any of their mouths; the rest of the time the Americans adopted Received Pronunciation or – in the case of the Egyptians – Haitian or African accents. The style was often very reserved as well, with actors maintaining and upright posture and very clear verse-speaking (or as I prefer to call it, communicating the verse to the audience). There was little – or no – American exuberance (known often in these parts as being 'loud') and it was almost static in terms of movement (or 'statuesque' as is said of some defenders in British football who are completely still as the ball whizzes past them and into the back of the net).
Yet for all its seeming Britishness in style, elements of it were also very American. Most notably, perhaps, was what Enobarbus (who frequently acted as narrator in McCraney's script) termed as "An Interlude: Caesar's Triumph". Caesar's triumph was one that in no uncertain terms was directly corresponding to the slave trade. One character was paraded around the stage – bound by a single rope that intertwined her neck, wrists and her owner – and whipped. Pompey then had his throat ceremoniously cut as Caesar looked on, wearing his gold garland on his head. While this non-verbal addition was layered with the painful (largely American) stigma of slavery on a date when I saw it that was very nearly the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, one of my British friends was extremely frustrated by the slavery imagery. 'Why?', she asked (the Americans got it immediately).
I think that answer to that 'Why?' lies both in McCraney's interests and in the audiences who will encounter the production next in Miami and New York. What McCraney's casting did was to primarily separate Romans and Egyptians along racial lines. Cleopatra and her entourage were black or mixed race while the Romans were English, dressed to represent the Napoleonic French as a nod to the Haitian setting (and rather than ignore it because we should be well past noticing or caring, but since we aren't it's worth noting that this was the first black actress to play Cleopatra on an RSC stage). The racial lines were drawn in ways that would probably shock Joseph Papp, who truly believed in colorblind casting, casting on merit with the best actor given the role purely on ability no matter if they were Blue or Gray. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this was the crucial difference in using race as cultural situator between McCraney's British-American production and recent British attempts at equality.
Many theatre companies have found ways to include more ethnic minority actors in their Shakespearean casts, making the process more equitable. This has sometimes taken the form of setting the plays in "foreign" locales (i.e., not recognizably heritage-infused white English country houses of period drama), sometimes with all black or all Asian casts, at other times with the demarcation along lines that show feuds in terms of race (as easily done in more than one Romeo and Juliet). This approach has often led to ethnic minority actors being re-"Other"-ized by forcing them to adopt African or Asian accents rather than allowing British-born actors to speak in their natural accents like their white contemporaries do. True, on one hand McCraney's Antony and Cleopatra was making Cleopatra and her fellow countrymen and women "other" in speech (the African/Haitian accents) and deed (with what I assume to be voodoo rituals introduced towards the end of the production). Yet the insertion of the slavery motif in what was in actual fact a very brief vignette highlighted the fact that Rome was there to conquer Egypt – the white man was colonizing Africa (or Haiti) once again. In this light, there was a kind of quiet dignity to Cleopatra's refusal to capitulate to the conquering Caesar and in her death she set her people free. What McCraney did – and perhaps was only able to achieve because of the interests clearly inherent in his own playwriting – was to infuse the Africans with pride in their culture. This Antony and Cleopatra was not celebrating Mark Antony's triumphs (rightly as he loses frequently in the play); instead McCraney's production celebrated Cleopatra. The vision of the black character in chains in the "Interlude" is juxtaposed with the spiritually free Cleopatra who chooses death rather than submission to the colonial invader. Freedom versus slavery, a very strong pull still in McCraney's America.
Most recently, Dr. Jami Rogers was a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton in the Drama Department. She trained at LAMDA and holds an MA and a PhD from the Shakespeare Institute, the University of Birmingham. Prior to obtaining her PhD, she spent 10 years working in public broadcasting in the US including 8 years at PBS's flagship programmes, Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!. She regularly publishes on the contemporary performance of Shakespeare's plays, including recent articles in Shakespeare Bulletin and Shakespeare: the Journal of the British Shakespeare Association. She has taught in Birmingham, London, Preston and Bolton and performed in professional productions in Washington, D.C. and Boston. She has lectured on Shakespeare and American drama at the National Theatre in London and works regularly with David Thacker at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton.
October 15, 2013
IRA ALDRIDGE’S EARRINGS
Part way through his address about the exhibition on Black and Asian Shakespearean performances called ‘To Tell My Story’ currently on display at Lambeth Library, Professor Tony Howard told his audience the story of Ira Aldridge’s daughter giving the earrings her father had worn during his acclaimed performances of Othello to Paul Robeson as he was about to play the same part. The story felt significant for two reasons: firstly, that it meant Black actors had been documented successfully playing Shakespearean roles in Britain since the 19th century; secondly, that it was an item of costume that indicated the exoticism of the role of Othello and so to symbolise something of the essential tension in the relationship between Shakespeare and Black and Asian actors today.
The exhibition is interesting. It starts in the 19th century and documents through some eight panels the highlights of Black and Asian Shakespearean performances in mainstream British theatre to the present day. Initially, it tells the tale of American Black performers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then it goes on to document the resistance to, and eventual inclusion of, British Black and Asian performers in a wide range of roles as waves of immigration swept by the tides of world history changed the composition of Britain’s population.
‘Here the sable African is free‘ Ira Aldridge declared in an ex tempo address to an adoring audience. The stage was his home, the play text his weapon of choice. Aldridge, like Robeson after him and many other actors since, understood the politics of performance, that the direct conversation between performer and audience can be tremendously powerful, the universal humanity of Shakespeare’s play an unshakeable platform for messages of equality and creative expression.
The display, and Professor Howard address, pointed out a number of firsts : Edric Connor as Gower in Pericles, the first ‘coloured’ actor to perform at the Royal Shakespeare Company; Cy Grant’s appearance as Othello opposite a young Judy Dench in scenes from Othello broadcast on ITV; the scandal in 1979 when the BBC wanted to bring in James Earl Jones to play Othello; Norman Beaton’s role in Measure for Measure; Talawa Theatre Company’s 1986 production; Tara Arts who described their Shakespeare as ‘the empire striking back’.
After the main address, actors Nicholas Bailey and Karen Bryson, who have both played Shakespearean roles, talked about when Shakespeare became a part of their lives and how they came to love his plays and were eager to do more. Professor Howard described the point of the BBA Shakespeare Project as ‘to celebrate achievements’. When the discussion was opened out to the audience, it was apparent that there were deep and abiding questions that the exhibition raised that begged discussion and perhaps deeper enquiry, including:
Why did it feel as if there fewer opportunities for Black and Asian actors to play Shakespearean roles today than there were a decade ago? Has theatre become complacent about using Black and Asian actors because it has already happened? What roles are there for Black British actors who were unwilling to play servants? Must actors wait on a director’s or producer’s artistic vision for a play before they can be looked at for roles? If colour blind casting is the right way to go, what right has anyone to object to a white actor playing Othello? Aren’t all minorities including gay and Jewish characters underrepresented or stereotyped in Shakespeare? If theatre is make believe, who can’t any actor play any part? The discussion in response to all these concerns was - needless to say - lively.
Shakespeare’s words are my story, Karen Bryson stated at the end of the evening’s presentation; the journeys of his characters are my journey. With these words, she summed up the dynamic relationship between actor and playwright, performer and audience. Conversations continued to hum in the atrium of Lambeth Library for a good while after the presentation ended. Shakespeare, whether you like or loathe his work, cannot be ignored.
11th October 2013